I recently learned that according to a group of education experts, the most impactful writing assignment of my life would not be rated as “high quality.”
This was third grade, when our teacher, Mrs. Goldman, tasked us with writing instructions for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and then had us attempt to make these sandwiches following our own instructions to the letter.
The experience provided an indelible lesson to my developing writer self. In one fell swoop, I understood that writing had a purpose and that purpose was determined by audience needs and to meet those needs one must consider these things prior to writing.
There was a lot of work to be done on the way to proficiency, but I had the metacognitive awareness of what writing was for, what it was meant to do by third grade. I’ve made frequent use of Mrs. Goldman’s exercise in my own classes essentially since I started teaching, with similar results.
But according to the criteria used by a report issued by the Fordham Institute meant to judge the quality of the “supplemental curriculum bazaar,” of online “teacher-to-teacher” marketplaces, Mrs. Goldman’s (and now my) exercise would not be judged “high quality” because it does not require students to “write to a text.”
I make no big-picture warrants about the quality or usefulness of the report. The people who produced it have strong education backgrounds, and the examination looks thorough. I tend to be more focused on the underlying systemic problems that has teachers feeling the need to go to online teacher-to-teacher marketplaces either to supplement their income as a provider, or their classroom practices as a teacher, but I want to focus on why it is a mistake to judge the quality of curriculum by whether or not it requires students to write to the text.
The study’s authors are using the criteria enshrined in the Common Core standards, which privilege “writing to a text” because writing to a text is what successful students are expected to be able to do. These standards are rooted in Common Core architect David Coleman’s belief that “as you grow up in this world, you realize people don’t really give a shit about what you feel and what you think.”
Coleman was justifying the shift away from essays of personal opinion or narratives based in personal experience. The CCSS were going to help students succeed at the more important stuff, “academics.”
In my view, the Common Core standards primarily enshrined what was already a disconcerting trend when it came to student writing, an emphasis on “schooling” over “learning,” and it’s had some bad downstream effects, which I’ve witnessed firsthand and which spurred me to produce Why They Can’t Write.
It is a bad sign in my first-year writing course when the peanut butter and jelly exercise is a similar epiphany to my college freshman as it was to me in third grade. These students have spent years writing to texts (primarily short texts), in many cases being judged proficient as writers on these tasks, and yet they understood very little about writing in general.
They had almost no practice with the writer’s practice, the skills, attitudes, knowledge and habits of mind of writers. The negative effect this has on students’ abilities to transfer from one writing occasion to another is bad enough, but worse -- in my view -- were the attitudes and feelings they had internalized about writing in general. To them, you write for a teacher to pass an assessment, a performance which primarily involved looking smart. They had some templated moves to follow, but those moves meant nothing outside the context of the school assessment.
The notion that writing could be used to explore an idea of personal interest or to passionately discuss those interests to outside audiences was almost entirely absent, and their negative attitudes toward writing were manifest.
These students had been defeated by schooling. Coleman’s belief that the world doesn’t give a shit about what they think had become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It is for sure important for writers to know how to write to a text -- I am doing it in this blog post -- but learning to write to a text is not achieved by doing rote, prescriptive “essays” from one’s earliest grades.
Writing is thinking, and learning how to think while writing almost certainly must predate or at least run alongside developing other aspects of the writer’s practice. If we want students to practice their thinking, we must give them interesting things to think (and write) about, which means looking at “high-quality” curriculum through a different lens than what is currently enshrined in the dominant standards.
It is not an easy task to determine what high-quality writing curriculum looks like in isolation. In many cases, the curriculum (what is done) cannot come fully alive unless coupled with the corresponding instruction (how to do it). One of the hardest parts of writing The Writer’s Practice was to combine instruction with the curriculum, while also leaving room for instructors to adapt the experiences to their own students and courses.
That said, here’s what I look for when it comes to deciding whether or not a piece of writing curriculum is “high quality.”
- It involves a genuine rhetorical situation with an audience other than a teacher assessing for a grade.
- It creates conditions where students learn something they did not know previously. This can be content related and/or related to their metacognitive understanding of the writer’s practice.
- It invokes multiple dimensions of the writer’s practice (skills, attitudes, knowledge, habits of mind of writers.)
- The writing is intrinsically interesting for the students themselves.
- There is an opportunity for reflection in order to improve students’ metacognitive understanding of the writer’s practice.
If the curriculum embraces these ideas, something interesting happens. Students come to enjoy writing, and they will develop a growing sense of agency and ability, which continuously feeds that enjoyment in a virtuous cycle. Basically, consider the context under which you do your best thinking (and writing) and seek to make those conditions for students and watch interesting things happen.
Consign them to a life of studenting and you get where we’re at now.
Before we start declaring what curriculum is high quality, maybe we should examine the roots of what we’re valuing and see if they’re planted in truly fertile soil.
There are some experiences in The Writer’s Practice that have the teacher as the audience (primarily reflective writing), but the teacher is there to receive information, not to grade the writing.
The peanut butter and jelly exercise does not convey new knowledge about peanut butter and jelly, but it does help students better appreciate the writing process.